A brutal attack by masked men on pro-democracy protesters at a train station in Hong Kong was an attempt by the city’s pro-Beijing elements to “silence the voice of Hong Kong’s people”, says activist leader Joshua Wong.
Outrage is growing in the city as more details emerged of what appeared to be a coordinated assault by dozens of men dressed in white T-shirts and armed with metal and wooden poles, who stormed the Yuen Long metro station hours after the end of a largely peaceful protest march.
Videos showed groups of men in white rushing through the station concourse and appearing to target those dressed in black, the colour of the protest movement. Ordinary commuters were caught up in the violence, at one point forced to flee back onto a train as the attackers swarmed the platform.
Speaking to The Independent, Mr Wong said the unprecedented attack was the work of members of Hong Kong’s organised crime triads, apparently “engaged and coordinated” by those who support the rule of mainland China. Some members of the mob were photographed smiling and shaking hands with the pro-Beijing MP Junius Ho, he said.
Among some 45 people injured in the attack were the pro-democracy politician Lam Cheuk-ting, who was repeatedly struck in the face, and the news reporter Gwyneth Ho, who was live-streaming the incident for Stand News when she was beaten. At least 15 remained in hospital as of late Monday evening.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, called the scenes “shocking” and urged for calm on all sides, saying that “violence will only breed more violence”. She also condemned protesters who clashed with police earlier in the day and defaced China's main representative office in the city.
But while Ms Lam said police would investigate the events at Yuen Long, and two alleged mob members were arrested on Monday, questions were already being asked about why it took officers up to an hour to intervene and stop the train station assault.
Mr Wong said Hong Kong police chief Stephen Lo’s claim that officers had to wait for backup from other districts was a “misleading excuse”.
6. Yuen Long: (Pro-Beijing) Legislator Junius Ho arrived and shook hands with a large crowd of white-shirted people, clapping and giving thumbs-up, saying “you are my heroes.” One man who shook hands with Ho was seen in Yuen Long beating citizens—the inside story is self-evident. pic.twitter.com/yw7TUt5KoF— wilfred chan (@wilfredchan)July 21, 2019
“Gangsters serving the interests of Beijing physically attacked not only protesters but also pregnant women, the elderly and children,” he said. “When people dialled the emergency 999 hotline, police just hung up the phone. They had 1,000 officers at the nearest station but did not send anybody.”
Mr Wong, who was repeatedly arrested for his involvement in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, said Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp had used hired thugs before to target mass demonstrations - but never to beat up “ordinary citizens” going about their business in the city.
“The pro-Beijing camp must realise that they go too far [this time], that this will just trigger more ordinary Hong Kong citizens [to] stand on the side of protesters.”
Formally, police are still investigating who carried out Sunday night’s assault. Yau Nai-keung, an assistant police commander in the area, defended the lack of arrests, saying: “We can't say you have a problem because you are dressed in white and we have to arrest you.”
Mr Lam, the politician caught up in the violence, said he was sure it was the work of triads, and that he personally made repeated calls to the police which were ignored.
"They deliberately turned a blind eye to these attacks by triads on regular citizens," he said, describing how the floors of the station were streaked with blood.
"I won't speculate on why they didn't help immediately," he said.
The shocking scenes of Sunday night were only the latest episode in Hong Kong’s worst political crisis since the 1997 handover of power from Britain to China.
Since the start of the year, protests that began in uproar against a new extradition bill have snowballed into a mass show of defiance towards Beijing and the “one country, two systems” principle under which Hong Kong is ruled.
Ms Lam and the city’s government have already said the extradition bill is “dead” in this legislative term and will not be revived unless and until it receives popular support, but protesters are demanding its full withdrawal, plus Ms Lam’s resignation and a promise of amnesty from prosecution for those who have taken part in demonstrations.
Protests have taken place each weekend for the past two months, and on Sunday police again fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse activists after thousands had ringed Beijing's Liaison Office. Protesters had spray-painted and egged the walls and a Chinese national emblem outside the building.
— Timmy Sung (@timmysung)July 22, 2019
The choice of the office as a target has struck a nerve on the mainland. The Chinese government, including office director Wang Zhimin, said the development challenged the “authority and dignity” of China.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the “radical protestor behaviour” had tested Beijing’s limits, adding “we cannot tolerate that”.
The protesters’ actions were condemned in the official People's Daily newspaper, in a front-page commentary headlined “Central Authority Cannot Be Challenged”.
And Ms Lam warned the vandalism had “hurt the nation’s feelings”.
The growing crisis has given rise to fears that China might consider a military intervention. On Monday, a social media statement said a Chinese army brigade held an “anti-terrorism” exercise in southern Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong.
That statement did not refer to Hong Kong directly, but military commentator and retired officer Yue Gang said that troops would be dispatched to the territory if needed.
"To deface the Chinese national emblem is like acting as an enemy to 1.3 billion Chinese people," Yue told the Associated Press. "They must be deterred."
The next protests would continue as planned on Saturday and Sunday despite the attack, Mr Wong said, and continue “every weekend… to show the people have the power”.
“We were not afraid of the crackdown on human rights,” he said. “We are not afraid [now] of these mobs from the pro-Beijing camp.”